‘She escaped from a death camp by hiding under dead bodies:’ UK newspaper readers uncover extraordinary past of local woman known fondly as ‘Polish Anna’
The extraordinary life of a Polish women fondly known as ‘Polish Anna’ has been uncovered by readers in the UK after a local paper ran a series of photos of her found in an old skip.
Publishing a feature inviting readers to share their memories, the Telegraph & Argus newspaper in the city of Bradford, West Yorkshire, was quickly inundated with fond reminiscences.
This in turn set in motion a train of online sleuthing which revealed Polish Anna’s shocking wartime ordeal as a slave labourer in Nazi Germany and the destruction of her village in Poland as part of Hitler’s Lebensraum plan to exterminate Poles from the Zamość region.
Moving to Bradford in West Yorkshire after the war as a Displaced Person, ‘Polish Anna’ became a well-known figure around the city for her ‘eccentric behaviour’, unusual dress and loud singing voice.
She was often moody and emotional, but people remember her straightforward friendly manner and sense of fun.
The local market was a favourite hang-out. She would help the traders in exchange for a little payment or cups of tea and pieces of fruit.
Several generations of locals remember her stalking the aisles of the market, waving her stick and singing in her distinctive deep voice.
The story of Anna’s life would probably have been lost forever if a neighbour had not found an envelope containing photographs of her in a skip shortly after she died in December 1985 at the age of 76.
The photos showed her living in Bradford, but also crucially they contained a snap of her identity card from the German company that exploited her as a slave worker.
Over 20 years later, the elderly neighbour rediscovered the photos and passed them on to the Telegraph & Argus.
The newspaper recently published the photographs hoping to jog people’s memories and maybe find out more about ‘Polish Anna’.
A reader from Germany, Dr Christian Frietag, remembered ‘Anna’ from when he studied at the city’s university in late 1970s. He decided to investigate wartime archives.
His investigations revealed the shocking story of how ‘Anna’ was enslaved by the Germans after they ethnically cleansed her village and murdered her neighbours and possibly members of her own family in July 1943.
“I checked the archives of the International Centre on Nazi Prosecution in Arolsen, Germany and found documents that shed light on Anna’s life,” the Telegraph & Argus quoted him as saying.
“According to these files she was born Aniela Torba on May 5, 1909 in the village of Domostawa, south east Poland. Her father Franciszek and mother Weronika owned a farm. Aniela grew up there,” he added.
“In 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, Domostawa became part of the newly-formed ‘Generalgouvernement’ under strict German rule. In 1943 special Wehrmacht and SS units moved into the area to fight the growing Polish resistance movement which had a stronghold in woodlands there.”
Dr Frietag was referring to the Zamość Uprising in response to the German’s operation to clear the region of Poles and bring in German settlers.
“The Germans shot and killed many hundreds of men, women and children, burning down villages and farmhouses, deporting thousands of Polish and Jewish people either to extermination camps or to Germany to do forced labour.
“It is very likely that Aniela experienced (or at least had a knowledge of) these massacres in which several of her relatives were murdered. She must have been one of the ‘lucky’ ones not shot on the spot, but sent to Germany as slave labourers,” Dr Frietag wrote.
In July 1943, the SS surrounded Aniela’s village, rounded up all the residents and murdered many of them. Records show that at least one of the victims shared Aniela’s surname Torba.
Dr Frietag continued: “A file card from the Arolsen Archives tells us that in early 1944 Aniela (or Amelie, as she was called in Germany) worked as a farmhand on a big estate north west of Hamburg.
“In the summer she was transferred to Luebeck, a port on the Baltic Sea, to work in a factory producing weapons for the German war effort.
“On May 2, 1945 British troops occupied Luebeck. Aniela was freed and registered as a displaced person (DP).
“As her ‘desired destination’ she specified Lodz, a large textile town in Central Poland. Returning to Domostawa was no option because the area was terrorised by gangs of uprooted people and militias.
“According to the Luebeck files, Aniela stayed in the DP camp until May 1948. She must have changed her mind regarding her ‘desired destination’: on May 7, 1948, she finally got permission to travel to England.
“Perhaps she arrived in Bradford because she had friends in the large Polish community there? Perhaps she hoped to find a job in the textile industry? Her reasons, like so many other aspects of her life, remain a mystery.
“Had we, back then, only known more about Anna’s sad past! We would have understood better why she behaved the way she did - often moody and emotional and peculiar. Rest in peace in Bradford, Anna.”
After Telegraph & Argus’ article, readers left many comments that added texture to Aniela’s life in Bradford.
Pauline Brook said: “When I got married, I lived in a back-to-back house and Anna used to spend the night in our outside toilet. I used to give her cups of tea in the morning.”
Andy Parratt recalled: “She was a wonderful character, teased by some kids and we dare not go too close to her as she was adept at wielding that rubber bottomed walking stick.”
Maureen Whitley remembered her fondly: “I used to love seeing Big Anna in town.”
Some readers have established that people who share Aniela’s surname still live in Domostawa and have reached out to discover even more details about her life.
Telegraph & Argus journalist Emma Clayton told TFN: “The response has been immense.
“It would be wonderful to try and find out more about her early life.
“People are very keen to know her story, and how she ended up in Bradford.”
To read more go to the Telegraph & Argus story HERE.